What makes America America? An answer available to most of us is our shared dedication to the principles of liberty and equality. We are ‘the land of the free’. Or at least we were until five minutes ago. Our freedom these days seems a little shaky. And in the world of higher education, those simple declarations are especially faint. By the time they arrive as freshmen (or ‘first years’ in today’s man-phobic argot) students are generally well-versed in all the ways we aren’t ‘free’ and most of the reasons why ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ are doubtful propositions. ‘America’ is increasingly defined for this generation as a place where some really bad things happened and continue to happen.
To follow that thread would to lead us into critical race theory, the 1619 Project, DEI and a host of other attempts to unsettle the American founding, uproot American capitalism, redefine relations between the sexes, de-carbonize the economy and embrace a new vision of a utopian future. I have been spending a lot of time for the last several years following those important controversies, which are sometimes bundled together as ‘successor ideology’.
Successor ideology, however, isn’t the only form of antipathy to the American founding on the shelves today of intellectual supermarket. If you ask, ‘What makes America America?’ you can find ardent supporters of many views: our geographic expanse, our multi-cultural origins, our Scots-Irish heritage, our English law heritage, our prevailing Christianity, our Enlightenment heritage, our inventiveness and more. The debates on these matters sometimes get heated but in the Walt Whitman spirit of ‘I contain multitudes,’ we should welcome both the variety of views and the contentions among them. They bring forward aspects of our exceptional country worth considering.
One of these areas of contention, however, has recently jumped what I think of as the guardrails. It does so by depicting its chosen opponents as mad or evil, or both. The primary voice of this view is a scholar named Laura K. Field, who is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, ‘a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) think tank that works to promote an open society’. How closely the Niskanen Center matches her views, I do not know. The center is best known for its support of the liberal-left power structure in DC and its advocacy of anti-global warming environmentalist measures.
Field has emerged into public visibility through a series of articles — eight so far — posted to the NeverTrumper website the Bulwark, and one very notable article posted by the Niskanen Center, titled ‘The Highbrow Conspiracism of the New Intellectual Right: A Sampling from the Trump Years’. All nine articles are, in various forms, denunciations of Trump and his supporters. Not long after Field published ‘Highbrow Conspiracism’, Peggy Noonan published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, ‘What Drives Conspiracism’. Noonan didn’t cite Field and it is possible they were both drawing from the same well, but the word is sufficiently unusual that a debt seems likely.
A few words of explanation. Field says in her essay that she took the concept from Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum’s 2019 book, A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. ‘Conspiracism’ appears to have been coined around 1981, according to Googles’s Ngram generator, but didn’t gain any broader usage until the late 1990s, and it spikes during the Trump years. Its meaning shifts a bit over that 40-year career, starting out as a way of talking about the willingness of people to believe conspiracy theories, evolving into the notion that all of history is an unfolding conspiracy, before arriving at Muirhead and Rosenblum’s idea that ‘conspiracism’ is ‘conspiracy without the theory’, made up of a tissue of — Field’s words — ‘assertion and fabrication’. Old fashioned conspiracy theories involved ‘sleuthing and a scrupulous attention to logic and detail’. Conspiracism goes straight to the construction of a fantasy world of ‘pure contrivance and fabulism’. To this category, Field adds ‘intellectual conspiracism’, in which the ‘New Right’ fills in the gaps with ‘hyper-abstraction’, as ‘bad arguments and scant evidence’.
The 2020 election and its aftermath
This sounds very sinister indeed. Who are these New Right purveyors of intellectual conspiracism? They are pretty much anyone who harbors doubts about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.
As someone who harbors such doubts, perhaps I can speak with the authority of an insider in the world of New Right conspiracism. In fact I know quite a few people who also harbor such doubts. Some believe that the election was swung by a combination of phony ballots and dishonest counting. Others see the mischief in the interventions of states’ attorneys general who usurped the powers of state legislatures and changed voting procedures to enable ballot harvesting, late voting and other electoral dodges. And a fair number blame Trump himself for ignoring the numerous warning signs that the Democrats were planning to game the election. Among the conspiracists stand a contingent who didn’t vote for Trump but were appalled by the election and another contingent who voted for Trump only after a great deal of hesitation.
From what I know of the ‘community’ of us co-conspiracists, we aren’t especially attracted to ‘pure contrivance and fabulism’. We are, rather, haunted by the evidence that something wasn’t right about the election, even if that evidence isn’t legally conclusive or dispositive.
The odd and near simultaneous interruptions of vote counts in swing states followed by massive influxes of Biden votes; the blockading of poll watchers; the supposedly mail-in ballots that had never been folded to fit into an envelope; the absence of down-ballot victories for Democratic candidates; the numerous bellwether districts that went for Trump; and dozens of other such details lead rational people — some rational people, not all rational people — to entertain the idea that something rotten happened on Tuesday November 3, 2020, and that it may have been part of a larger organized effort to swing the election against a candidate who was very popular with a majority of voters but intensely disliked by a minority.
I know from the few occasions when I have alluded to my own views among acquaintances and friends who in the intensely anti-Trump category, they have responded with hot indignation. Where is your evidence? they demand, as if an opinion based on the assessment of the kind of circumstances I have just mentioned has no possible validity. Let me admit at once: I have not attempted my own audit of the balloting in any state. And I have watched the efforts of other better positioned than I to demand such accountability, and watched how the Democratic party has sought to thwart such efforts.
When I hear the line that ‘the courts have rejected all the challenges’, I usually fall silent. It is a dishonest claim in that courts that have rejected hearing a case or that have denied standing to the people who have raised a challenge, have not weighed a complaint on its merits.
And besides, none of this bears on that initial sense of the sheer implausibility of an election in which the incumbent garners almost five million more votes than he did four years before, while his challenger, without campaigning, bested him by more than seven million votes. Biden also outperformed the enormously popular Obama by more than 11 million votes. Trump lost the election by about 44,000 votes in three key states, out of the supposed 155 million votes cast. Biden’s victory in that sense was achieved by 0.002 percent of the vote. It doesn’t seem at all crazy to imagine that electoral mischief could have tilted the playing field by that much.
One can conjure reasons for these implausible figures: population growth, broader enfranchisement, massive dissatisfaction with Trump, etc. But we conspiracists tend to think that those who see nothing amiss are rather credulous. The words ‘contrivance and fabulism’ come to mind, as do ‘bad arguments and scant evidence’.
We are, in short, at the usual cultural divide, but I have no wish to call down thunder and lightning on my friends, neighbors, and colleagues who disagree with me. And most of my fellow conspiracists are likewise not eager to deride the intelligence or moral character of those on the other side. We realize that a workable country requires some accommodation. The only thing is that we see little of that spirit coming from the Biden administration, which acts as though it has a mandate to turn anyone who has qualms about the 2020 election into an outcast. The continued imprisonment of some of the participants in the January 6 Capitol riot and their description as ‘insurrectionists’ is disquieting, especially since most of them seem to be facing trivial charges such as ‘trespassing’.
Even taking note of these developments seems a little perilous. My forthcoming book, Wrath: Enraged America, suggests that such repressive measures may well spark more serious pushback than we have seen so far.
Let me acknowledge that those of us who credit the idea that the 2020 election was compromised in various ways are acting on suspicion, not fully sifted evidence. Outside a court of law, there need not be a presumption of innocence. If you see a stranger going out your front door carrying your flat-screen TV, you are perfectly in the right to suspect he is a thief, though it is possible there is another explanation. You regard the burden of proof as resting on the fellow with TV, who had better have a good explanation. For us conspiracists, the suspicious circumstances have multiplied to the point where we believe we are owed an explanation. ‘Shut up or we will shut you up,’ does not suffice. There is a deeply-rooted level of apprehension in the English/republican tradition based on the understanding that liberty is fragile and once lost is often gone forever. The left, however, sees such fears as an obstacle to humanity achieving its natural state of utopia, and thus disdains as ‘conspiracy’ what for the rest us is common sense and prudence.
I imagine that Laura Field and her associates at the Niskanen Center and the Bulwark have heard all this before and discounted it entirely as the ravings of the ‘intellectual conspiracists’. Field’s latest essay, ‘What the Hell Happened to the Claremont Institute?’ is a 12,000-word scorched-earth denunciation of an intellectually conservative organization some of whose officials and associates have expressed doubts about the 2020 election, and before that, for Trump’s candidacy. I’m not affiliated with the Claremont Institute and certainly don’t speak for it, but I have friends and associates who are affiliated with it, including the chairman of its board, Tom Klingenstein, who also sits on my board. So when the Claremont Institute is held up for 12,000 words of ridicule, I read them.
And if the reader of this essay would like to learn about the alleged flaws in Professor John Eastman’s judgment, Michael Anton’s ‘cheerleading’ for Trump, Professor Charles Kesler’s ‘dodgy apologetics’ and Glenn Ellmers, the ‘full-on fanatic’, Laura Field has the dope.
Claremont, we learn, is the center of ‘West Coast Straussianism’, which as Field sees it, uncritically idolizes the American founding and Abraham Lincoln, and is to be sharply distinguished from the more respectable ‘East Coast Straussianism’, which stands philosophically above the political fray and with which she associates herself. How far above the political fray seems in question in light of her nine (so far) essays of anathematizing intellectual conservatives for their susceptibility to Trump’s charms.
Whether Field has been tasked with shooting the varmints or she has found her true calling as the scourge of wrong-think among conservatives I can’t say, but I do find her essay extraordinary in its vehemence. It is something to watch a well-educated and quite capable writer take a swan-dive into the volcano of the partisan hatred. Field has no reservations — not the least cavil — about the party line on the 2020 election:
‘There is evidence of a very small amount of voter fraud in our massive democracy. But the claims and elaborate theories of widespread electoral fraud in 2020 are still rightly called baseless. They are baseless because no credible evidence has been found for anything close to the amount of fraud that it would take to influence election outcomes. They are baseless because officials in Trump’s own administration charged with election security issued a joint statement on November 12 declaring the 2020 election to be “the most secure in American history”.
‘They are baseless because Trump’s 60-plus legal efforts to prove the contrary were thrown out of court. They are baseless because thousands of election officials and state legislators, from both parties and everywhere in the country, stood by the election results — many in the face of extraordinary political pressure and, in some instances, threats to themselves and their families. They are baseless because common sense dictates that election officials of both parties will be hyper-attentive and receptive to legitimate claims of fraud; when partisans stand by the election results, it makes good sense to trust them.’
Well, OK. Thus we consign all those who do have doubts to the outer darkness where the delusional and dishonest do their unending dance conspiratorial. Presumably, the 74 million deplorables who voted for Trump should dry their tears and make the best of their benighted lives.
I really don’t think this is how matters will play out, but I lack any Straussian credentials, East or West, that give me special authority on the matter.
What I do have is my long-standing interest as an anthropologist in American culture, especially in what makes us proud, what makes us indignant, what grieves us, and what makes us angry. What makes America America? A sense of fairness. It is embedded in those ideals of liberty and equality. We are a nation in love with the idea of charting our own destiny and throwing off the unjust impositions of others. That’s why movements such as Black Lives Matter make such headway even when they are, on closer inspection, not so worthy. Our founding principles can be turned to account for showmen, charlatans and crooks, as well as for statesmen, and we must cultivate the judgment to tell the difference. But one thing we won’t stand for — at least not for long — is usurpation. Fixing an election is not a good idea. We don’t know what happened in the 2020 election. Demanding that we silence our doubts on pain of being written out of the national conversation, however, is an extremely bad idea.
As for the Claremont Institute, it stands for the centrality of the American founding. That’s a position that the vast majority of Americans — at least those not on college campuses — share and respect. I can see why those who wish to proclaim the validity of the 2020 election would go out of their way to defame Claremont. Reassuring a nervous regime of its legitimacy can be a good short-term play. But it is perhaps not the best long-term strategy.